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Dark skin not immune to sun damage

African-Americans, Hispanics and others with substantial amounts of melanin in their skin must also beware of the dangers of too much sun.

Published July 1, 2003

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Floridians especially should be aware of the health risks associated with prolonged sun exposure; damage done to the skin is cumulative. Sunscreen provides some protection, but it might not be enough. So before you head to the beach, take time to learn the basics of sun protection.

Anne Tomlin is outdoors every day. She walks in the morning, rides her bike and gardens.

"I put on sunscreen, but not religiously like I should," said Tomlin, an African-American with fair skin. "I do have a lot of trees and shade, but that's no excuse."

Although large amounts of melanin in African-American skin offer some safety during sun exposure, protection is still a must, said Dr. Susan C. Taylor, a dermatologist in New York and author of Brown Skin: Dr. Susan Taylor's Prescription for Flawless Skin, Hair and Nails.

"Brown skin, whether light, medium or dark, can burn," said Taylor, who is African-American. "People don't think of our skin as burning, but it does."

And if African-Americans with diabetes or high blood pressure take medication, that too makes their skin more susceptible to sunburn, Taylor said.

Sunburn isn't the only result of sun damage in black skin.

"Our skin is prone to dark marks and discolorations. Sun makes dark marks darker and keeps them from fading," Taylor said.

In rare cases, African-Americans can get basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma, which generally are caused by sun exposure.

The squamous cell variety is the most common form of nonmelanoma skin cancer found in African-Americans, but it occurs in only about 3 of 100,000 African-Americans, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology Web site.

African-Americans who develop basal cell skin cancer usually have other skin conditions, such as vitiligo, lupus or albinism, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation Journal. Sometimes the cancer occurs in African-Americans with fair skin, Taylor said.

Basal and squamous cell skin cancers comprise about 1 percent of all cancers in African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and American Indians, according to the journal.

Skin cancer occurrence is slightly higher among Hispanics, Asians and American Indians than it is in African-Americans. However, it occurs at lower rates in these groups than it does in whites.

Melanoma is the most severe form of skin cancer for all races, but it is the most deadly in African-Americans, according to the American Cancer Society News Center. Perhaps that's because it is detected later in African-Americans, Taylor said.

Still, melanoma is 10 to 20 times less frequent in African-Americans than whites. In African-Americans, melanoma is found in places not commonly exposed to the sun, such as the palms of hands, soles of feet, nails, fingers and toes, Taylor said.

"If it looks like you have dark brown or black spots in these places, run, not walk, to the doctor," she said. "Look for moles that change in size, shape or color, or that become raised, painful or bleed."

Tomlin, 65, of Clearwater goes to a dermatologist once a year to have two moles on her back checked, she said. It's just a safety measure. She also plans to be more vigilant about using sun protection, she added.

[Last modified June 30, 2003, 10:43:21]

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